BATON ROUGE, La. -- As talented as the No. 3 LSU football team has been and will be as the season unfolds, there are still a lot of young players learning on the run.
And learning how to play at the same level every week against every team on the schedule is a sign that the Tigers are a work in progress.
Facing unheralded Idaho on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium in a game wedged between a showdown with Washington and the SEC opener vs. Auburn, LSU overcame some first-half sluggishness with a pair of interception returns for touchdowns and barreled past the Vandals 63-14.
"I think our football team was imperfect," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think everyone can see that we can be a dominant football team. In all three phases at different times, we were dominant in this game. We need to eliminate some mistakes in the red zone. Frankly, we will learn from this game and we will be better for it. We will improve."
The Tigers blew the game open with three third-quarter touchdowns.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger shrugged off a costly interception on a series that could have taken the wind out of Idaho's sails and finished the night 17-of-22 for a career-best 222 yards and two touchdowns.
Tailback Kenny Hilliard finally broke the game open with a 71-yard touchdown run, part of a 116-yard night that was the second time this season he has eclipsed the 100-yard mark. That anchored a 250-yard rushing night by the Tigers.
And the LSU defense -- shaky at times in the first half -- finally found its footing in the second half to subdue Idaho. LSU limited the Vandals to just 53 yards and as many first downs as they had three-and-outs (four apiece) in the final two periods.
The blowout that happened was supposed to transpire from the start, but it never gained much traction in the opening two quarters.
In fact, outmanned Idaho (0-3) made LSU (3-0) and a boisterous student section nervous enough that Vandals quarterback Dominique Blackman felt confident enough to taunt the students late in the second half.
Blackman had every reason to feel full of himself. In the first 30 minutes, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior was 12-for-15 through the air for 99 yards with a pair of touchdown passes that allowed the Vandals to hang close.
Interceptions caught up with Blackman, though. He was picked off twice in the first half -- both by strong safety Ronald Martin, who took one back for a score -- and defensive end Lavar Edwards snared another pick on Idaho's first possession of the third quarter.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Edwards lumbered 23 yards to the end zone to extend an uncomfortable 28-14 lead to 35-14. Hilliard blazed through the Vandals' defense for his long TD burst on Idaho's second series to open the floodgates.
Despite a solid start and a handful of big plays by the defense, the first 30 minutes were a blend of lethargy and blown chances for the Tigers.
LSU led by the two TDs at the break, thanks to Mettenberger's two touchdown passes and the combination of nickel back Jalen Collins and Martin creating two tide-turning interceptions.
Martin, making his first start in place of Craig Loston, set up Alfred Blue's 3-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter, padding the score to 14-0 and seeming to trigger an oncoming avalanche.
But things turned completely around when Mettenberger tried to force a third-down pass into the end zone and Idaho's Gary Walter swiped the ball and nearly went coast-to-coast. Odell Beckham Jr. temporarily prevented the score when he chased Walker down after a 94-yard return.
The stay was only temporary, as Blackman zipped a TD pass to Michael LaGrone to pull the Vandals within 14-7.
Martin's pick-six extended the lead back to 21-7 at the 9:05 mark of the second quarter and seemed to get things back on track for LSU.
"Any time the defense scores, it really takes the momentum away from the offense," Miles said.
But Blackman got into a groove on the ensuing series and picked apart the Tigers' normally stifling defense.
Idaho marched 81 yards in seven plays, with Blackman hitting all six passes he threw for 67 yards -- the last a 22-yard strike to Jahrie Level for a touchdown.
"In the first half I thought that our football team had done a better job of competing, and we did a better job of finding ways to make better plays," Idaho coach Robb Akey said. "Obviously, the interception that (Walker) had sparked a little something in our offense, and we were able to get something going there. I liked that our guys were working to fight to play with the No. 2 team in the country at that point in time. It was a battle at that point in time."
Clearly stunned by the Vandals' tenacity, the Tigers stumbled through the next few offensive series, but the defense came up big by forcing a punt from the shadow of the Idaho end zone. LSU got the ball with 1:33 to go after Beckham's 11-yard punt return and went to work in the two-minute drill.
Mettenberger dumped a pass to Alfred Blue for 9 yards, connected with Russell Shepard for 23 yards on a slant-and-go route and then rifled a 7-yard scoring pass to Jarvis Landry with 56 seconds left before halftime.
NOTES: The Tigers' two interception-return TDs marked the first time since 1991 they had more than one in a game. ... Three LSU players made their first career starts Saturday: Elliott Porter at center, Anthony Johnson at defensive tackle and Martin at strong safety. ... LSU's win established a national FBS record for consecutive regular-season non-conference victories at 40. The Tigers' last loss to a non-SEC team in the regular season was a 13-10 setback vs. UAB in 2000. LSU also notched a program-record 20th home victory in a row. ... The Tigers played with 74 scholarship players after losing four to academics and another to a season-ending injury during the week. The only potential starter in the group was junior linebacker Tahj Jones, who had been held out of action all season while an academic appeal was in process. ... Blue carried 10 times for 46 yards, but was on the bench the entire second half with an apparent ankle injury. He entered the game as the SEC's second-leading rusher with 224 yards. ... Shepard caught three passes for a career-best 56 yards. He also ran three times for 24 yards. ... Boone's 17-yard TD grab in the first quarter was his third TD catch this season, a team-high. ... Hilliard bulled into the end zone from a yard out to give him two rushing scores in all three games this season.